Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2009
The Goodman Theatre Production of Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Robert Falls. Scenic design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Ana Kuzmanic. Lighting design by Michael Philippi. Original music and sound design by Richard Woodbury. Wig design by Charles G. Lapointe. Cast: Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber, with Boris McGiver, Daniel Stewart Sherman.
It must be noted immediately that this is in spite of the nips and tucks director Robert Falls has made to Eugene O'Neill's 1924 tragic melodrama (or is it a melodramatic tragedy?). He's cut a fair amount of dialogue. He's excised the attendant ensemble that's always filled out the periphery of the 1850 New England setting, and settled on only five actors (only three of whom - Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, and Pablo Schreiber - have major roles). Most notably, he's done away with the elms, placing the action on and around a pile of boulders that, as designed by Walt Spangler, looks like a confused cross between a quarry and an avalanche.
Yet the crazed excesses polluting this production's every pore almost make the theater's last tenant, the Patti LuPone revival of Gypsy, look reasonable and restrained in comparison. Falls has abandoned the commitment to naturalistic minimalism that served him well in his 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman and superbly in his 2003 version of Long Day's Journey Into Night, and instead plunged into sugar-rush realism so heightened it may as well have been launched skyward with a catapult.
Falls begins the evening with a pantomime set to music, depicting the drudgery the three Cabot brothers, Eben (Schreiber), Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman), and Peter (Boris McGiver), must endure. Simeon and Peter haul rocks, perspiring and grunting. Eben busybodies around the family cottage. And for the better part of five minutes, absolutely nothing happens.
This concept is rehashed later, after Eben's father Ephraim (Dennehy) arrives home with his new wife Abbie (Gugino), who's destined to fall - and fall hard - for Eben. To the strains of Bob Dylan's 1997 "Not Dark Yet," the three putz around the household, eat dinner, and try ignore their encroaching discomfort for the full length of the song, during which time no useful information is conveyed.
It is not, however, exactly surprising. Falls establishes in the first seconds that he's less concerned with the story than he is its throbbing foundation, so his essential ignoring of Dennehy - in this scene and practically everywhere else - makes some sense. Because the play is somewhat creaky today, with soap operas and nighttime dramas having gone much further many times over, pretending that real emotions can exist here could well be a gateway to unstoppable tidal waves of audience sniggering.
Personally, I think audiences could cope with it. (I also think they don't need the metallic-sounding amplification that renders every spoken word a balcony-piercing screech.) But the actors would have no chance in any event: Not a single one makes the dialogue sound natural. True, O'Neill scripted it in a nearly impenetrable dialect that perhaps overemphasized the regional nasality of extreme Northeasterners. But the way the actors alternately blare, mumble, spit, and swallow their lines, often into utter incomprehensibility (Schreiber is particularly poor in this regard), is not an identifiable attempt at communication - with each other or with us.
It doesn't matter much: The cuts and the atmosphere of suffocating abstractness ensure O'Neill barely has his say anyway. But there is still some meat here. The Westward Expansion, the allure of California gold, and the debilitating effects of living a life of want are vibrant topics for exploring how souls are discovered, stripped bare, wounded, and healed, even when they seem their most untouchable. The romantic triangle at the center of the show may be silly on the surface to our eyes, but it's the pulsating heart of America at its greediest and grabbiest, the reminder you can't (and shouldn't) always get everything you crave.
That's the essence of Desire Under the Elms. But Falls and his actors are so obsessed with playing its symbolism - another example: The cabin's kitchen table (the emblem of home) is profusely fondled, rubbed, and sweat on - that they forget to just play the play. The result is one of the most overwrought and underthought ensembles with major names that I've ever seen on Broadway.
Schreiber is a categorical disaster, a shambling scarecrow barking his lines and wearing a perpetually dizzy look that in no way brands him as the barely containable or civilized sex object O'Neill demands. Gugino is hopelessly modern, her attitude and voice more peeved Park Avenue than School of Hard Knocks graduate; she keens and cries and moans and wails, but she only occasionally connects with the woman who's become the conduit of pain for a father and son. (Any chemistry between Schreiber and Gugino is strictly accidental, derived more from their physiques than anything they do with them.) Dennehy gives Ephraim all the James Tyrone he can, but ultimately looks ancient and weak, not the pillar of solidity he should be. He comes across as useless to the point of invisibility - Falls simply isn't interested in Ephraim except as a means to an end.
Whether the play should be about no more than Eben and Abbie going at it is another question, but at least Falls's attention to it helps the play live up to its title. And yes, some skin is flashed. It's all Schreiber's, however, and judging from what he shows, Eben has spent much of his mother's inheritance on a platinum gym membership. But one wishes Falls had paid this same respect for leanness to the rest of this Desire Under the Elms. What use is a director's paring a play of its fat if he also gives it a metric ton of new dead weight to lug around all night?